There has been a lot of press surrounding Michter’s for some time – some good, some bad, some mixed. I’m a bit of a bourbon-purist. Many of us pick up a can of green beans, a bag of frozen corn, or a pack of steaks and don’t think twice about where it’s from. When it comes to bourbon though, many of us like to know the story behind the bottle as well as the source of the spirits contained inside.
Michter’s – much like the Oliver Stone movie “JFK” – leaves us with more questions than answers.
Where’s my bourbon from?
The label doesn’t help much with this question. The front of the label states Michter’s Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Established 1753. Wow – that’s really old. Almost as old as Mick Jagger looks. The backside of the label indicates that “In the Michter’s tradition, hailing from one of America’s first whiskey distillers, this bourbon is made from highest quality American corn and matured to the peak of perfection in hand-selected charred white oak barrels. It is then further mellowed by our signature filtration.”
The Michter’s line of bourbon has only been around since the mid-1990s. Unbeknownst to me, though, I learned much of the backstory when I read a book from my daughter – The Best Bourbon You’ll Never Taste by Charles Cowdery.
The cover of the book contains a picture of A.H. Hirsch Reserve 16 Years Old – which bears no connection to any Hirsch products you see today. The original Michter’s and Hirsch brands lay defunct when the distillery shuttered operations on Valentines Day, 1990. The brand lay abandoned until the mid-1990s when it was purchased and reintroduced by Michter’s Distillery, a division of Chatham Imports of New York, NY.
When brands are purchased, the new owners not only take on the brand name, but the brand history, as well. Here’s where the A.H. Hirsch brand and Michter’s weave their story.
A Revolutionary Bourbon
The now-defunct Bomberg Distillery in Newmantown, PA traces its roots back to pre-revolutionary times in what were then the American Colonies. Legend has it that George Washington had purchased whiskey from Michter’s PA forbearers to give comfort to troops suffering through the winter at Valley Forge.
The original distillery, built in 1753, closed during Prohibition. Reopening in 1933, it, like many other small distilleries, saw multiple owners and name changes. Abandoned and shuttered in 1990, the brand name (not the distillery) was resurrected by Joseph Magliocco, President of Chatham Imports.
The whiskey operations underwent three distinct phases. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Chatham was a non-distiller producer (NDP), sourcing whiskey from other distillers, blending the final product and bottling under their own name. In 2007, under the guide of Willie Pratt (former master distiller at Brown-Forman), Michter’s moved to a contract distiller. Here, a third-party made the product, according to the Michter’s recipe and formulation. This contract distillation is more than just producing bourbon – it’s everything unique to a brand, including its proprietary yeast strain and filling the barrels at a lower proof (more expensive, but produces more flavor). Unconfirmed rumors circulated in many bourbon circles that neighbor Brown-Forman was the source of Michter’s distillate.
Lastly, in 2015, Michter’s own distilling operations began at a new distillery in Shively, KY, just south of Louisville and not far from Heaven Hill and Brown-Forman’s operations. In January 2019, Michter’s also unveiled a completely renovated space in the old Fort Nelson Building and anchoring Distillery Row in Downtown Louisville. Here, once again, the legendary pot still and cypress wood fermenter system from that original Pennsylvania Distillery in Newmantown, PA are once again doing their magic.
What’s next for the Michter’s brand? Look for continued innovations. A facility in Springfield, KY is overseeing the production of their own, unique non-GMO grains, including corn, barley and rye.
According to Master Distiller Dan McKee, the distillate enters the barrel at a low entry proof of 103 to produce the desired flavor profile. With the exception of special releases (such as their 10 or 20-year products), the barrels are aged to taste, and the bottles don’t contain age statements. This entry-level Small Batch product is bottled at 91.4 proof, without an indication as to the bourbon’s source or mash bill.
Eye: Light copper with long, thin legs when gently swirled in a Glencairn glass.
Nose: Very rich vanilla and caramel essences. I keep going back to this because it has a really great nose. Three words – vanilla, vanilla, and more vanilla.
Palate: Vanilla, toffee and corn with a light mouthfeel, but very balanced.
Finish: Medium. A little spice followed by oak and ending in more vanilla.
Overall: This is very good bourbon. As much as I’d like to know more about its origins, mashbill, and the like, I’m left hanging my head and saying, “This is actually pretty good, regardless of where it’s from.”
There are many good bourbons out there. We paid about $45 for this bottle. I wish it wasn’t quite as expensive, as just a few dollars more gets me a Woodford Reserve Double Oaked or Old Forester 1910 or other bottles with more solid backstories.
If you see this one on a shelf near you and are willing to try a newer bourbon without asking a lot of questions on its history, grab this one. It’ll be hard to put the glass down! Cheers!